Thursday, April 3, 2008

"That Book Looks Bright"

The past week, reading first on the commute Christopher Hitchens' "god Is Not Great," then an interlude with Seamus Deane's novel "Reading in the Dark," and yesterday beginning Richard Dawkins' "The God Delusion," I've noticed the aura of coincidences that a believer would read more than chance into. Daniel Dennett, in "Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon," argues that we have ingrained within our being an atavistic tendency to make patterns out of what's mysteriously for us, if not for those in the know, on our earth and in the heavens.

You can see in Turner's depiction "Mustering of the Warrior Angels" the human imagination at its finest fruition of sketching out order from what we cannot see but rather imagine. Yet, do I see in the wreathed clouds a ringed shadow around Saturn? These rings only revealed themselves to us with Galileo's telescope, not God's boasts to Job of His terrible cosmos and awesome creatures. The writers of the scrolls lacked our knowledge, of course, and their world-view reflects people with centuries of staring up at the lights above, but who failed to understand that unlike the claims of Genesis, the stars are not separate from the sun, and the moon does not light the darkness in the same way as the sun banishes it daily.

Turner's painted heavenly hosts are the culmination of our celebration of ancient wonder, if also the harbinger of our modern age of doubt that gnawed at the fabric of faith, of our habitual ordering of chaos. This tendency led to our ancestors creating gods who ran what we could not explain, who revived the dead we could not wake, and who placed the stars into the shapes that we view them from on earth. When I was young, I used to practice what I never heard anyone else doing until I read Yukio Mishima's "Under the Waves" in college, and a character did there what I did, which I later learned has been defined as spontaneous divination.

Hitchens and Dawkins, of course, feature in their screeds against superstition such rational debunkings of the tendency we mortals have of finding the divine in random happenstance. Relating to later in this blog post, Dawkins and Dennett have called for "brights" as a term that those proud to be non-believers should rally around, in the same way that "gay" has been reclaimed, and even "queer," by another contingent often reviled and forced to hide under our purportedly God-fearing rulers secular and clerical. Hitchens, from the literati rather than the laboratory preferred by Dennett and Dawkins, joins their ranks but on grounds of style eschews the awkwardly self-promoting verbal coinage. I'm finding all the books by these out-of-the-closet (although none of these public intellectuals are shy of the media) proponents of a New Enlightenment fascinating reading, even though as even they might expect, I cannot bring myself to agree totally with their spirited rhetorical appeals to reason.

They-- along with Sam Harris' "The End of Faith," the first in this series that I encountered a few years ago when teaching ethics and looking for an article to get my class riled up about philosophical vs. religiously based assertions for a foundation for right behavior that could be endorsed for all-- do intrigue me. Since so much of my upbringing has been immersed in Catholicism and so much of what I continue to study continues in that tradition, it's a brisk slap in the face of what I have deep down still harbored as "the way it's always been." As the Gang of Four sang: "every day seems like a natural fact."

Dawkins, in what I read today, cites Ambrose Bierce's definition of prayer. I paraphrase in clumsier language the vain hope that a single human, an a woeful weak sinner to boot-- can ask for universal laws of nature to be suspended so as to gain his or her petition's fulfillment.

What's happened since I read Dawkins, Deane, and Hitchens? An elderly black man got on the Blue Line at the Imperial junction. He opened a battered black suitcase with a neat sticker quoting John's gospel: "And I ask you, love one another as I have loved you." Opening the case as he sat directly across from me (I favor the end single seats near the door for legroom and lack of another possible human beside me), he read slowly, lips moving as his finger traced each line, Corinthians 12. Meanwhile, I hunched over Hitchens as he demolished such scriptural claims to truth.

The other chilly morning before dawn, I looked down as I waited for the Gold Line. A small piece of paper turned face down intrigued me. I needed a bookmark for the Deane novel, so I picked it up. It was a fortune cookie saying. "You will continue to take chances, and be glad you did." Numbers, for your own use if you play the lottery: 11/13/19/23/27/[period]/1. I get a share of the take.

This afternoon, on the Blue Line as I returned home from work, another elderly black man got on, this time with a cane, at Imperial. He sat, looked at me and the few other dozing or dazed passengers in the 2:30 doldrums, and inquired of us sotto voce: "Do any of you listen to gospel music?" He had, I then noticed, a duffel bag beside him; I figured tapes were inside. Nobody responded, and I nodded my head (you can guess which way) politely and returned to my drowsy perusal of Dawkins' current ripostes against intelligent design.

Half an hour or so later, the friendly ponytailed driver with a turquoise ring on each finger along with silver jewelry who often drives the Gold Line in the afternoons north noticed me. I was, after all, occupying the seat behind his booth in the first car. I sit here if there's an empty car so I can hop off easily. Knowing that the driver needs to get in the compartment to make the train go, I logically tucked my legs up.

My nose stayed in Dawkins as he eviscerated smoothly the Catholic dichotomy of claiming respect for scientific mechanics while requiring for canonizations miraculous suspensions of those same laws of the universe that petitioners seek, and as Bierce accurately if ruefully defined. The driver made his way, as he does every other time I've seen him, through the cabin, greeting each rider. He marvelled when he got to me, the last one, or the first. "If I ever need an escape artist, I'll call on you," he remarked. I guess I had contorted my legs akimbo. Maybe the mysterious arts of the East, a.k.a. weekly yoga, are working wonders after all.

As I left the train at my stop, I paused to put my book in my satchel. The driver often wishes the departing passengers at each stop farewell, but you can only hear this if you are one of them, from the train's outside speaker. He gave his valedictions, adding it seemed to me and for my benefit (as I and a young Latina were the only ones in earshot, except for the Sheriff on the other platform waiting to apprehend ticket evaders from the MTA's soon to be ended honor system with the installation of $80 million for turnstiles to catch the 5% who cheat the Man while violating the Commandment not to steal): "That book looks bright." It does have a silver brilliant foil cover even through the Brodart library plastic jacket. Or, was it: "That book looks light"? I could not decide what I heard. It was, however, not that dazzling a day, for clouds from last night's brief storm lingered in the gloaming sky towards the deeper cobalt haze over the mountains fifteen miles away.

Image: J.M.W. Turner, 1834 from the Tate: "Mustering of the Warrior Angels"

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This work of art and its copyright are the property of Stockton-on-Tees Borough Council Museum Service as part of the Clephan Bequest and not as stated the Tate. Reproduction conditions should be sought from Stockton-on-Tees Borough Council.